By John A. Akec, Vice-Chancellor of Juba University

Dr. John A. AkecThe recent pronouncements about a plan to conduct feasibility studies on the defunct Jonglei Canal Project by the South Sudanese Vice President for Infrastructure. H.E. Taban Deng Gai, with the backing of South Sudan’s Minister for Water Resources and Irrigation, Hon. Manawa Peter Gatkouth, has raised eyebrows and risked opening the old wounds between Sudan and Egypt that were thought to have long been healed and forgotten.

The controversial project was agreed to by Sudan and Egypt in 1974 and the construction of the canal began in 1977–against the wishes of the South Sudanese population. However, seven years into the beginning of the digging of the canal, the construction was halted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in 1984 following the kidnapping of French construction workers and engineers at the site. Consequently, the giant equipment owned by a French company which was used to carry out the massive excavation work was dismantled, and its parts laid to waste. 

The revival of the debate on the Jonglei Canal Project, which was contrived to benefit Egypt and Sudan at the great costs of South Sudan’s future water security and sustainability of the Sudd Wetland, has caused a stir and horror amongst the ordinary public, civil society groups, academia, and legislature. According to the Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, Manawi Gatkouth, the new feasibility study is intended to explore the possibility of utilizing the 270 km of canal that was completed and abandoned as a solution to the problem of flooding which Jonglei and Unity states have been experiencing in the last three consecutive years (2019, 2020, and 2021).   

Proposed Jonglei CanalThe Jonglei Canal Project was first conceived by a British engineer in Cairo back in 1904. The aim of the project was to increase the amount of Nile water flowing to Egypt and Sudan from Bahr Jebel and Bahr El Ghazal basins by 4 to 10 billion cubic meters per year, on the assumption that this amount of water was being  ‘lost to evaporation’ in the Sudd wetland. The loss of water through evaporation was thought to be preventable by constructing a canal. The canal, which was later named Jonglei Canal, would divert significant amounts of water coming from Lake Victoria and then flow through Bahr El Jebel directly into a junction a few kilometers north of Malakal, where Sobat River joins up with the White Nile before flowing northwards to Sudan and Egypt. 

Successive Anglo-Egyptian colonial administrations as well as post-colonial governments in both Sudan and Egypt, reworked and refined the project concept to reduce flooding in regions of Sudan, and minimize the negative impacts the project was bound to have on the Sudd wetland and its ecology. The final design was commissioned in 1974 and implementation began in 1977. It involved the construction of a 340 km-long canal from town of Bor to connect Bahr Jebel to White Nile a few kilometers north of Malakal , at the point where the Sobat River joins up with White Nile.

The Jonglei Canal was calculated to give Egypt and Sudan an extra 10 billion cubic meters of water that was to be equally shared between the two countries. If implemented successfully, it would allow Egypt to cultivate and irrigate an additional 2 million hectares of agricultural lands along the Nile, and hence boost food security for its increasing population and industrial development. Some of the benefits to South Sudan, as claimed by the Project’s proponents, included the draining of flood plains in Jonglei state, and allowing agricultural and industrial development in the, area as well as enhancing river transportation between Juba, South Sudan, and Sudan.

However, such diversion of huge amount of water from the Sudd Wetland, according to environmentalists and water experts, has the potential of draining and destroying the Sudd’s ecosystem with dire consequences on the Sudd’s region biodiversity, livelihood, culture, and hydrological cycle of Bahr El Ghazal and Bahr El Jebel basins. 

One of the catastrophic impacts on the basins’ hydrological cycle is that the 10 billion cubic meters of water eyed by Sudan and Egypt, and which evaporates from the Sudd and carried by the northern wind to southwest of the of the country is responsible for rains in the “green belt” that comprises western Bahr El Ghazal, western Equatoria, northern Democratic Republic of Congo, and northwestern Uganda. And once the Sudd loses that capability to cause rains through evaporation of its water, the “green belt” will cease to enjoy all-year round rains, and the above places will become as dry and arid as eastern Equatoria. In short, the cost will not only be borne by the nearly 2 million people who currently benefit directly from the Sudd’s ecosystem services, but also its negative consequences will be felt far and wide in the region including 97% of South Sudanese population living in Nile Basin.

Finally, environmentalists have argued that vast parts of Jonglei are flood plains (from which parts of the region derived its name Bor) had experienced frequent flooding in the 1960s. And that rushing to reopen the debate on controversial and bitterly opposed Jonglei Canal as a quick solution to problems caused by flooding without first considering damaging consequences is anything but wise. 

Potential solutions to flooding include construction of dykes, resettlement of the affected population in high lands, and climate adaptation, among others.